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Integrity of Rome’s downtown historic district needs to be dealt with in a consistent manner

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Historic preservation in Rome has generated a lot of interest and controversy over the years. The Historic Preservation Commission has been the focus of considerable criticism from people who argue the panel has too much power over someone else’s property and what they can and can’t do with that property.

“It’s not some external factor that’s causing the problem, it’s us,” said Rome City Commissioner Craig McDaniel. He points to the new library, the Forum, the joint law enforcement center and the Third Avenue parking deck along the river. “The comment I’ve heard, and I share this, government is allowed to have one set of rules, but private owners have to adhere to another set of rules.”

McDaniel said the city’s new Business Development Committee has asked HPC Chairman Harry Wise to look into what the panel can do to maintain some level of consistency moving forward.

It’s hard not to make note of the fact that Rome’s historic downtown has been a major economic driver for the city since making a nearly 100 percent recovery from urban sprawl and the flight from downtown districts to suburban strip and mall shopping centers that started a half-century ago.

Kristi Kent, director of communications and marketing for the Greater Rome Convention and Visitors Bureau, last month went to the Georgia Welcome Center on I-75 near Fort Oglethorpe armed with a series of phrases to see which ones have greater impact on potential visitors than others. The travelers who participated in her survey reacted in largest numbers to Rome having the largest intact Victorian-era downtown district in the state.

McDaniel also said the Business Development panel has asked the HPC to look at the boundaries of the districts with emphasis on fringe areas such as the areas that have been redeveloped, almost exclusively by government, along the Oostanaula River. “I want the integrity of what we have downtown — the historical value of what we have downtown — to continue, but these outlying, these fringe areas where we give the appearance of not being consistent, we have to deal with those (better).”

“Maintaining the feel for what brought us here, the architecture is all part of what attracts people to an area,” said David Prusakowski, an insurance agent with offices on Third Avenue and a member of the Downtown Development Authority board. “Preservation of old architecture that is significantly historical is important.”

Architect Mark Coch­ran said being designated as part of the Victorian era means that buildings were constructed between 1860 and 1900.

Kent said she needs to do more surveys, get more numbers, before she chisels together a new marketing plan for the CVB and community in general for 2018, but it is clear from her limited survey that historic preservation matters.

“It is a major driver of tourism and economic development,” said Ann Pullen, a downtown resident, downtown property and business owner, and member of the DDA board.

Of continuing to place emphasis on preservation of the historic ambience of downtown, DDA Chairman Steven McDowell, owner of Old Havana Cigar Co., said, “Anything we can do to bring tourists to our town is wonderful, any time we can deposit dollars into our downtown is wonderful.”

Cochran said the downtown district is like an anchor that reminds Romans and visitors of where the city has been in the past. “Broad Street is the crown jewel of Rome. You can pick any billionaire you want and let him spend $100 million on the nicest strip center in the country, and he can’t emulate what we have on Broad Street,” Cochran said.

Wise said the historic flair of downtown Rome adds to the quality of life in Rome. “We want to maintain a sense of connection to our past and we need to preserve it for future generations,” Wise said.

The historic feel of downtown is certainly not the only thing that brings tourists, because as tourism chief Lisa Smith has said on several occasions, Rome and Floyd County is not a one-trick pony when it comes to the reasons people come to town.

To be certain, people coming to town is vital to the economic well-being of the entire community. How many times have promoters of the special purpose, local option sales tax used the argument that visitors who come to Rome and drop their dimes make up as much as 40 percent of the revenue generated by a SPLOST.

The state produces an annual economic impact report which, for 2015, shows that tourism alone brought more than $4.24 million in local taxes for Rome and Floyd County. That figure is obviously not for the Broad Street district alone.

“If you ask people to point on a map where the center of town is, both culturally and socially, people would point to Broad Street,” Cochran said. “That’s not always the case in every city. Rome has been able to retain that, and it gives us a cultural identity.”

John Ruskin, a Victorian-era art critic wrote, “Architecture is to be regarded by us with the most serious thought. We may live without her and worship without her, but we cannot remember without her.”

Travel writer Arthur Frommer once wrote, “Tourism simply doesn’t go to a city that has lost its soul.”

“I think it is critical for our children and our children’s children to see what went on in this town,” Johnny’s New York Style Pizza and Seasons owner Bob Blumberg said. McDowell added, “This district wasn’t preserved overnight, it took generations of people with the right mindset to make it happen, and it’s going to carry us into the future.”

Regardless of its economic impact, the downtown Rome business district and city leaders have combined to form a partnership that reflects the unique history of the city. Its adaptive reuse also attempts to anticipate changing technologies to try to make sure the district remains alive and well for another century and a half.